God is Good.
Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? The answer is, neither. There is no independent standard of good apart from God. Good is the nature of God. In this fallen world, the only morally good actions are those which reflect the nature of God. Just as God is only knowable through revelation, so goodness is only knowable through revelation. The answer to this ancient question (Euthyphro’s Dilemma) would have been well known to any first-year seminarian of the past centuries, but is forgotten in practice if not in totality by today’s clergy and bishops. There are catastrophic consequences for the care of souls and the preservation of the church.
So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
It was good for food: an empirically provable point. God never said that it wasn’t. It was a delight to the eyes: a more subjective observation but one that we are led to believe was held by at least half of the world’s known population at the time. Again, God never said that it wasn’t. It was to be desired to make one wise: Duh! It was called the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So, we have here an apparently morally neutral act with empirically demonstrable benefits which is generally accepted as the smart thing to do by any independent standard. It is now time to re-imagine what God would have said with this new information in hand. She took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. We have a consensus affirming the decision. Eve can properly persuade herself that the plain word of God does not properly represent the true character of God: “Ye shall not surely die.” Yet, the result of this carefully thought out and well supported consensus is catastrophic. It is foreseeable, but only by trusting in the revelation of good. If God had not said, “Don’t do this” we would have no way of ascertaining it on our own. From Genesis 1:4 onward the declaration of what is good is the sole province of God, and can only be known by revelation. Only as God is revealed to us can good be known by us.
The readers of this column are quite capable of drawing the parallels to the state of the church in North America. Many of us who live at the apex of human knowledge have come to believe that we can know all good. Many believe that through reasoned study of the natural world and objective analysis of human behavior we can avoid the errors of the unenlightened peoples before us and authoritatively declare what is good. We then take this paradigm of good and use it to evaluate all before us…contemporary society, the prophets, the Scriptures, even Godself.
We feel comfortable with the idea that the plain word of God does not properly represent the true character of God. We produce the research demonstrating the benefits available to us from an action, we point out that the action is pleasing and desirable for a substantial portion of the population, and there is consensus that the action is the smart thing to do. With this light, we can discern the defects of the prophets, the errors of the Apostles, there are even those with the singular ability to psychoanalyze God and discover the personality flaws in the Divine. With our authoritative good we can judge the Scripture and Godself, but neither of these are ever allowed to judge our determination of good. This is the path which led us out of Eden.
However, “(t)here are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two Ways.” There is a path that leads us in goodness which is the character of God. Our Lord has not left us wanting for direction. Do you “love the God who made thee and thy neighbor as thyself,” then first, devote yourself to the plain word of Scripture before venturing into spiritualizing and re-imagining the texts, because “where the Lord’s nature is spoken of, there is he present.” “Thou shalt not forsake the commandments of the Lord, but thou shalt keep what thou didst receive, ‘Adding nothing to it and taking nothing away.’”
Continually study the lives of the saints for, “thou shalt seek daily the presence of the saints, that thou mayest find rest in their words.” Cease from reading about Wesley or about Wycliffe or about Chrysostom or Aquinas. These people never taught about themselves but about the Way of Life. Instead, read the works written by the saints whose desire was, “to know one thing–the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book!”
The saints are not only to be found in distant times. They live today. They are pastors who have been imprisoned and daily tortured in Iran—continually threatened with death. They could have relief from their suffering by simply denying Christ. They are Christians who have left the comfort of the United Sates to carry the Gospel to places where their primary transportation is a bicycle and clean water is a luxury for the wealthy. They are in China, where a clergy couple stood in front of a bulldozer threatening their church and were buried alive. The husband died but the wife was pulled out alive. When it comes to knowing the way of God and what is good ought we not to pay greater heed to their words than those who invent clever ideas while seated in leather chairs behind mahogany desks inside ivy covered walls?
The saints are not only found in faraway places. I have seen them at the end of a summer’s day of hauling logs out of the forest and then teaching a Vacation Bible School class of seven-year-olds. They come in after the graveyard shift at the plant to keep the church nursery. They spend a large part of a sixteen-hour day in consultation with accountants and bankers trying to make payroll without laying off that single mother of three, and then I stumble over them repairing a toilet in the social hall. When it comes to knowing the way of God and what is good ought we not to pay greater heed to their words than those who have found the church with its guaranteed appointment, minimum salary, and conference provided retirement to be a comfortable living and a comfortable way of life?
The saints can tell us that there is much which is desirable, demonstrably beneficial, and quite practical which is not good. The saints have proven through hard experience that there is much which is undesirable, without obvious benefit, and totally impractical that is good. They have found a stumbling fumbling way down a path that leads to life—to goodness—to God. Yet, except that God reveals it, we have no way of ascertaining it on our own.